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An Adjunct's Vindication
Florida Atlantic rehires instructor at center of controversial class exercise involving the name "Jesus." University reconsiders ban on exercise. Faculty Senate finds administrators "dismally failed" on academic freedom.
Florida Atlantic University on Friday announced that it was rehiring Deandre Poole -- who was at the center of what was called the "stomping on Jesus" controversy -- as an adjunct instructor in communications for the summer and fall terms.
The university administrator who made the decision, asked if Poole had done anything wrong, said -- without hesitation -- "No." Further, the university is backing away from statements it made at the time the controversy broke out that said the exercise in question could never again be used at Florida Atlantic. University officials said that their guide for discussing future use of the exercise would be a Faculty Senate investigation of the controversy, released Thursday, that found that the class in question was entirely appropriate, and that senior administrators at the university had "dismally failed" to protect academic freedom.
For Poole, who had been placed on leave and barred from campus with the university citing threats against him, Friday's news marked an abrupt reversal of fortune. He had been in one of the most vulnerable positions a faculty member can face -- off the tenure track, with religious groups and political leaders in Florida attacking him and calling for his dismissal. In such cases, many an adjunct is simply not rehired. Poole, however, received strong support from the faculty union and Faculty Senate at FAU.
In an interview Friday, he said, "I'm ecstatic."
The dispute over Poole's February 25 class session quickly became the subject of much press coverage in Florida, with politicians firing off news releases and some members of the public angry enough to send threats to Poole. The class was in intercultural communications, and Poole asked students to write the name "Jesus" on a piece of paper. He then says he asked them to put the paper on the floor and to step on it.
The exercise is from a widely used textbook, and the Faculty Senate inquiry found that Poole used the activity in a way consistent with the idea from the textbook. Students hesitate to actually stand on the piece of paper, and this leads to a discussion of the power of certain words and the way that power is based on cultural values. (Critics immediately demanded to know why Poole hadn't asked students to write "Mohammed" on the piece of paper, but as the professor who created the exercise has explained, the point is to use a word that will have power to the students in the class, so that might be a good strategy in a largely Muslim class, but not most American classes.)
A student who objected to the exercise exchanged words with Poole and was reported by the instructor not for his reaction to the exercise, but for the way he treated Poole. When this student went public with his grievances, he was portrayed as facing university charges for refusing to "stomp on Jesus." (Poole has denied ever using the word "stomp" but press reports have repeatedly identified the controversy with various forms of the word.) At that point, the university issued a statement in which it criticized the exercise and vowed that it would never be used again.
"Based on the offensive nature of the exercise, we will not use it again and have issued an apology to the community. It was insensitive and unacceptable. We continue to apologize to all the people who were offended and deeply regret this situation has occurred," the statement said. And a few weeks later, Poole was placed on leave.
No Protection of Academic Freedom
The Faculty Senate report issued last week noted that this statement was issued without any consultation with faculty members who might have provided context to help administrators understand the lesson. Further the report said that both banning a legitimate classroom lesson and failing to offer a defense of Poole -- who was being attacked widely -- constituted an abandonment of university responsibilities to protect academic freedom. Since the controversy broke out in the spring, Florida Atlantic's president, Mary Jane Saunders, resigned. She had faced criticism over numerous issues, not just the Poole controversy.
Heather Coltman, interim dean of arts and letters at Florida Atlantic, said in an interview Friday that she largely "followed the process I follow with the appointment of any instructor" in deciding whether to hire back Poole. She said she examined enrollment patterns, curricular needs, Poole's credentials and experience and the (positive) reviews he has received over the years. But she said she also consulted with a "threat assessment team" because of the "unique situation and security concerns" that emerged after Poole started to receive threats.
Coltman said that, based on all of the evidence, there was no security need to bar him from teaching, and that the university would benefit from having him return to the classroom. "It's totally appropriate for us to keep Dr. Poole on the faculty," she said.
Both Coltman and Poole said that he would discuss with faculty colleagues any repeat of the Jesus exercise, but both also said that they understood there to be no ban in place. Coltman pointed to the Faculty Senate report as the basis for further discussion, and that report says that professional classroom exercises should not be banned. "Academic freedom is very important to us," Coltman said.
The report issued by the Faculty Senate includes documents that show the extent of the political pressure on FAU and the state's university system, as well as the evidence that emerged quickly that the events in the classroom that day didn't transpire as originally reported.
Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, wrote the president of the university system, calling the lesson "offensive, even intolerant," and requesting a report on policies "to ensure this type of 'lesson' will never occur again." U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, wrote as well, asking why a student had been suspended for "respectfully expressing his religious and conscientious objections" to the classroom exercise. (The university, from the start, has stated repeatedly that no student was punished for objecting to the lesson.)
Another document that the Faculty Senate report included was a statement backing Poole signed by 20 of of the 23 students in the class the night of the Jesus exercise. They said that there was nothing offensive at all about Poole's lesson.
"When pursuing higher education, students are encouraged to learn how to think, not what to think," they wrote. "During lectures, open discourse and conversations, especially about controversial issues, aid in the learning process and help prepare students for the harsh realities of life. Dr. Poole is a great professor and a man of high moral values. We the students were not offended by any classroom activities, including the one pertaining to Jesus.... We stand with Professor Poole during this rough time and refuse to let him continue to be demonized."
On Friday, Poole said that he wished more people had been provided with the full story early on. (He was told by the university when the controversy broke not to talk to reporters. And university officials appear to continue to be concerned about how the story is told: FAU made Coltman and Poole available to discuss his rehiring with them both on the phone at the same time.)
"I regret the misinformation that was out there and the way the story was characterized," he said Friday. "I wish everyone had all the information to form a more reasonable conclusion." Asked if there were lessons from the controversy, he said, "Members of the public need to be reminded that a university is an institution of higher learning, and is supposed to be a safe place for engaging in controversial issues. If we can't have these conversations at the university, where else are we going to have them?"
It is unclear whether the politicians who wanted assurances that the lesson would never be repeated will take further action. Governor Scott's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Hirman Sasser, the lawyer for the student who complained about the exercise, who was frequently quoted criticizing Poole and FAU when the controversy broke, took a conciliatory tone Sunday. Asked about the university's announcement, Sasser said via e-mail: "I believe in grace, mercy and second chances."
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